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Contra: The Hard Corps | Konami

Konami was a company well-known for its reluctance in supporting Sega. Given Sega's limited successes outside of the arcade division in its native territory, they had good reason to be content working mostly with the capabilities of the Super Famicom, with the occasional cross-platform port to the Mega Drive. All the more astounding for owners of the Mega Drive when Konami abrubtly changed this policy between 1993-94. In many ways, Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) was responsible for producing the shift that led Konami to a more emphatic (i.e. exclusive) presence on the console, as they in turn wanted a fast-paced mascot platformer of their own. It was with Rocket Knight Adventures that Tomikazu Kirita (RKA's producer and Sonic fan) and staff had gained a taste for the unique possibilities offered by the Mega Drive, and in their ability to command its resources, ensured that their follow-ups Vampire Killer and Contra: The Hard Corps would be some of the finest examples of their respecive series', and also of genre.

That's because most of the heavy lifting was already done. Nakazato had nearly perfected the structure in Spirits with a faster pace, varied stage design (like an auto-scrolling section on a speeder bike), relegated but concise zako segments in favor of more bosses, and more actions for the protaganist. The rest of Spirits success was due to Konami's eagerness and proficiency in exhibiting the Super Famicom's hardware, although this wasn't always to a game's benefit in the initial years (e.g. Axelay's conveyor belt scrolling WHAT THE FUDD?) The exception here was in the form of two overhead stages with rotatable floors that might've overwhelmed the eyes in 1992 but ultimately offered none of the exhileration of the side-scrolling stages. The point is, if all Hard Corps did was be a prolonged version of Spirits with new scenarios it would've been an adequate sequel, and this is addressed more than suffiently with branching paths as well as being totally comprised of side-scrolling stages.

Commander Doyle briefs the Hard Corps.

They continued. Expanding on the range of techniques introduced in Spirits (climbing, fixable shot, bombs, weapon stock) is a system of selectable characters each with a distinct weaponry that can be summoned at any point after aquiring them. Like Thunder Force, every weapon is given a corresponding slot on the status bar and lasts until the player dies with the weapon in use. The default shot is even upgradable. Konami really took advantage of this feature by including some unusual weapons for the characters Fang and Browny, such as explosive punches or an electromagnetic yoyo. Using these weapons is assuredly unlike anything you've experienced in a run and gun before. Additionally, there is a sliding move that offers a slight period of invulnerability to enemies and bullets. It's never fully considered (that is, there aren't any moments where you're forced to slide) but it does allow some relief and an outlet for playing more stlylishly.

It's the dynamics of stages however, that is Hard Corps' most defining aspect. Leaning even further into a boss attack, stages are almost totally composed of bosses, with zako segments serving as little more than links to boss arenas (and mixing up the strict patterns of boss battles with a few aimed bullets). Important to note here almost a full reversal from the original where the innumerable barrage of aliens was your biggest threat. Now, it's the amount of tons you're up against. This, more than anything is what provides Hard Corps with a greater scale and persistence of action that is near unprecedented in the genre, which says something when that genre is called "action shooting". Even when not dueling with some screen-sized behemoth or a spurt of zako, they've managed to enliven the jogs to the next battle with events like an earthquake, various building demolitions (including an entire cityscape,) running over a giant mechanical arthropod with an APC before being sent through its windshield, or a quick ride through a parking lot on one of those propeller-like objects from Spirits and inevitably getting shot down by a boss. And after that it's on to stage two.

The sprite work in the game is equally exceptional. Granted, the squat appearance the male heroes doesn't lend itself to a grim atmosphere, but this was more than likely done to give expression and clarity to the small scale sprites occupying 5 or 6 vertical 8x8 tiles. Outside of this objection, you couldn't ask for a more effective realization of a post-apocalyptic and cyperpunk world (and more generally science fiction as the megastructures and cyborgs give way to space and aliens later in the game) using a palette of 64 colors. Convolving the theme slightly is a trip to what I'll assume is some sort of prehistoric terrarium, either that or it's the weirdest ass jungle I've ever seen (come to think of it, what was Strider Hiryu's excuse?) not that I mind the break from standards. In the end, it's some of the finest graphic work on the Mega Drive, and when partnered with a rare technical dash rivaled only by their former colleagues at Treaure, creates an unmatched visual style. The highlight (in a game of them) would have to be Powered Ninja Yokozuna, a massive humanoid robot that is a combination of segmented "puppetry" and manually drawn rotation for limbs and joints, opposed to the usual technique of globes or some other unit representing limbs (think Vectorman, Gunstar's Curry and Rice, etc.) I'm not sure if it's the most demanding feat but the product is stunning, and one that would've been welcomed in any arcade action game during the time.

Ray faces Deadeye Joe against a twisting backdrop à la Hang-On.

If there is one controversy about this Contra, it would be in regards to the game's difficulty and some distasteful alterations to it in a particular region's release. I am, of course, talking about the insertion of a life bar in the Japanese version. Yep, the problem with the difficulty is that it's too easy. It only took me a couple of plays to discover whether or not this was a valid mechanic or another example of an arcade-born series' capitulation to the console, because that's how long it took to clear the game (on the supposed hardest route, at that). The American version fortunately axes this gratuitous feature and restores a level of challenge that's at least consistent with the previous games, not that you're really going to be walking away a pile of minced meat. If nothing else, it just plain old doesn't feel right that in a Contra game my reaction to a spiked fist in the face is an interjection and a slight jerk of the spine. Hurt me more, Hard Corps.

It's not all about challenge though. The reason it's one of the best 2D action shooters is that previously mentioned ostentatious style and the consistency with which it delivers. Few games of its kind can claim to orchestrate the degree of energy Hard Corps displays in its greatest moments. And while it loses an edge on its arcade contemporaries by lacking any type of real scoring (what's there is pretty much an extend mechanism,) it does recover some depth from the ability to mix and match characters and routes. In essence, it's everything you can ask for from a console action game.


魂斗羅 ザ・ハードコア


Fan Page (Japanese)
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